In just short of a month's time nineteen years will pass since the night at Parc des Princes in Paris which most Croats alive at the time will likely never forget.
World Cup third place playoff victory over the Netherlands ensured Croatia's place in footballing history, only six years after the young nation started to write its own as a sovereign state. The man who scored the winning goal that evening was Davor Šuker, a man who to this date remains the top scorer in Croatia NT's football history.
A 1998 Golden Boot winner, Davor Šuker was a hero. In a country struggling to come to terms with its newborn identity and at a same time obsessed with developing a personality cult, Šuker was the perfect role model. Hero of a nation searching for one, who served as a role model and an example that even a small country like Croatia could give the world its representative who will excell at the very top. His checkered number nine was something every kid on a neighbourhood block playground would wear, emulating his famous pulse-check while taking the penalty against Romania in the second round of the tournament.
What people often ignore is the definition of theword 'hero'. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, a hero is 'a person admired for achievements and noble qualities'. While the first part really is related to Davor Šuker's outstanding playing career, there is a part we often skip, blinded by the notion of a man who brought glory to a whole country desperately seeking for approval. To acknowledge that such a hero on the other hand has a dark personality would mean to make him one of us, an imperfect person, a 'nothing'. And that is surely not what people seek in a hero.
But that is also why Davor Šuker, and his modern incarnation, Luka Modrić, divided a nation almost twenty years after the first incarnation of a 'Checkered Hero' was brought to life.
At the time of writing this piece, one of the most publicized trials in Croatian history is taking place. In a country where even its former Prime Minister is trialed for various corruption charges, that is a no mean feat. Zdravko Mamić, the notorious chairman of Dinamo Zagreb, alongside his brother Zoran, background part of that immortal 1998 World Cup squad and a former coach of Dinamo, as well as Damir Vrbanović, former CEO of the club and a current executive director of the Croatian FA are facing trial over embezzlement and tax evasion charges related to transfers of various players from Dinamo Zagreb. Two of those are Luka Modrić and Dejan Lovren, who now play for Real Madrid and Liverpool respectively.
Those two players were a vital part of the investigation undergone by USKOK (Croatia's anti-corruption office task force) and supposedly initiated by none other than the FBI, and their statements given during the investigation regarding their outgoing transfers from Dinamo were presented as vital evidence against the defendants. Furthermore, their role as the key witnesses was seen amongst a large sum of fans in Croatia as the one more important than any of those they've undertook on the field; even while wearing the 'sacred' checkered shirt. For all the times Luka Modrić displayed his footballing magic, fearlesly finding his way out of seemingly impossible challenges, this was the one situation where he should not trip.
Yet he did.
It was peculiar in a sad way to see him stand in front of a judge with such a frightened posture, just days after he commanded the midfield in another great Real Madrid final victory. With a trembling voice and a hunched leaning, he suddenly changed his statement previously given to the investigators, claiming it was 'a misunderstanding'. He then proceeded to change his strain of thoughts and claims, leaning them in favour of Zdravko Mamić and the defendants, who were omniously present just a few feet behind him. The rest of his testimony was a mixture of farcical anmesia and denial. After the hearing was over, Zdravko Mamić victoriously stood in front of media, claiming that Modrić's testimony was 'beautiful'.
The fans in Croatia, tired of almost a decade long battle against the corrupt system that is in control of Croatian football are the ones that expected little of the judicial system who had let them down so many times, but Modrić managed to dissapoint them once more. His amnesia was so absurd, he even forgot the year in which he made his international debut for the Croatian national team, rounding up the fans' fury. He did not score an own goal, he just made a key pass towards the hand that fed him while he had nothing, only to use him for their its own profit at the expense of Croatian football. A huge public outcry took place as the hero of the nation – albeit with a status far less glamourous than the one Davor Šuker enjoyed during his glory days – became a traitor.
A perfectly rounded scenario of the two people that brought the nation together at one point, only to break the chain in the worst possible way. Twenty years ago Šuker, now serving as what most would call a puppet figure for the ventriloquist system known as the Croatian FA, embodied the ideal of Croatia as a 'nation of fighters', especially as the country just ended a five-year bloody war for independence. The ideal that took form in that 1998 WC squad reached a divine level, used by then autocratic leadership with president Franjo Tuđman at helm as the example of a nation. The national team status redefined the way in which sport and its representatives should be seen, mutating in a sense that anyone who should question the athletes' moral or non-football related activities must be pointed out as a dissident of some sort. It would be perhaps be a stretch to say that the image and status of Croatia's 1998 WC squad resembles the one of Vittorio Pozzo's Italy under the Mussolini's regime, but it wouldn't miss the mark in certain aspects. That dogmatic status held on long after president Tuđman's death, making it a safehaven for those who undertook a life on the 'dark side' afterwards, undermining their achievements during their playing carreers.
The only difference nowadays is that the divine status of the footballers gone bad is not defined by their service to the image of the State obsessed with micromanaging every part of society as it was the case during the nineties as much as it now serves the interests of the corrupt system, hiding under the cloak of 'patriotism'. Yet the point remains the same: question the status of the footballers as nation's heroes and you're implying that you stand against the sense of national pride. If you seek evidence for that module, look no further than the reaction of the Croatia's president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović after the riots at the last year's Euros in France pointed towards those fans who stopped the match v the Czech Republic as a sign of protest. It is an easy way out when facing criticism, surely, yet the approach becomes very efficient when put into a perspective of Croatian society's collective mind, which embraced the idea of athletes as the 'best possible example of our nations' citizen' enforced during the era of young democracy. The athletes are still percieved as the example of a citizen who – even if it's, like in the cases of Šuker or Modrić, clear that they work more less solely in the interest of themselves and the system that 'created' them in the first place – should be absolved of any personal faults, all the while being held in high regard for the fame they bring to Croatia with their sporting achievements.. That ultimately made them the perfect cover for the elites, who then persuade them to be 'on their side', which should suggest that if the likes of Šuker and Modrić are approving their obviously shady actions, who are you then to question them?
The heights that such stance reached inside Croatian society resembles the state of an ideological civil war. Unfortunately, for a large part of fans nowadays, no victory would be big enough for the national team to regain their trust and to once again serve as a strong bond for a country hit by crisis and decline.
A lot of things remain the same twenty years after that night of glory on Parc des Princes, but at the same time the Croatian football switched from a unifying force to a dividing mechanism.